The Political Divide and Teens
By Jeff Simms
Illustrated by Sasha Harris, Arlington High School Student
How are high school students in the Hudson Valley affected, as they become young adults, by the political divisiveness that grips our country today? The assignment was daunting. To prepare, I tried to put myself in their shoes.
In the fall of 1991, as I began my senior year in high school, the United States was entrenched in Kuwait, leading a coalition of nations against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm.
In the year before the war, I remember some talk of reinstituting the draft. I didn’t really understand whether those talks were serious at the time, but the idea shook me nonetheless. I was aware of the conflict in the Middle East, but I realize now I wasn’t informed enough to form a real opinion. I remember a friend urging me, “Don’t die for oil.”
As I drove to meet the students I was to interview for this article, I wasn’t sure what to expect of them. What would they say? Could I have answered these questions back in 1991? I feared their words might be few, not to mention their emotions. And that was what I wanted most—not to judge political philosophies but to understand how they were feeling.
Of the 15 students in the group—among them championship athletes, second- (or third-) generation farmers and polished poets and writers, although I didn’t know one from the other—maybe half of them spoke. That’s okay; I’ve never been particularly talkative, either. And the ones who spoke told me politics wasn’t on their radar.
“I’m not going to talk about something I don’t know that much about—especially if I don’t know the full story. It just doesn’t interest me.”
“This is the time when we should enjoy ourselves. I’m not going to try to upset anyone.”
Yet, one by one, after we’d broken the ice, the students began to answer my questions. One boy, a junior, told me how he’d been miscast as a racist and a xenophobe after expressing an opinion about immigration. “These were people who had no knowledge of me or my family,” he said. “It was hard to get through.”
I was inspired by how engaged the students were and the care with which they spoke. They were aware and willing to talk.
Another student said that it’s hard, even in teenage social circles, to speak without offending someone. “If you’re not even involved in politics, you get criticized,” she said. “What if you just don’t want to be involved with that stuff yet? It’s like skating on thin ice.”
I could understand where they were coming from.
In the end, it’s still hard to say how teens are affected by political strife in the country today. In a different setting, I surely would have heard different answers. But the questions I asked the kids that day prompted thoughtful and civil discussion, and the students weren’t afraid to admit if they didn’t understand everything.
Maybe politics could learn something from them? I think I did. █